C.E.-”Bro” or C.E.-”No”?
“Let’s call an Uber.” This phrase is ubiquitous on a college campus such as Princeton’s, where most students do not have cars. Uber is no longer only for quick runs to Target or Chipotle during the school week: some of my friends have claimed that they have taken an Uber back to their dorm from the Street or called an Uber so they wouldn’t have to walk to their E-Quad classes during bad weather. But granted the recent controversy surrounding Uber, from its ties to President Trump to former employee Susan Fowler’s claims of sexual harassment to a lawsuit from Google about stealing trade secrets, it is easy to question what direction Uber is going in, what’s behind all of this, and whether this pervades more startups than just Uber. Comparing Uber to Facebook and Snapchat illustrate that Uber has a long ways to go.
Sexism in startups, especially in Silicon Valley, has always been seen as a problem. The “Elephant in the Valley” Survey from early 2016 interviewed 200 women working in tech startups, largely in Silicon Valley. Extremely striking are the findings that unconscious biases exist--88% of women surveyed have “experienced clients/colleagues who have addressed questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them,” and 60% “reported unwanted sexual advances.” This problem has been known for a long time, but has faded in and out of popular attention and is often dismissed as something that will always exist in the Silicon Valley workplace.
Recently, after Fowler’s allegations against Uber, the topic has been revisited in popular media. The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece entitled “Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin” describing the prevailing “bro culture” in Silicon Valley startups. Using examples such as Uber, Quirky, Zenefits, author Dan Lyons denounces the young men that run these startups as reckless with their money and despicable in their treatment of non-young-male employees, especially women, minorities, and the elderly. Lyons argues that the lack of experience that these men have coupled with their fame cause their companies to become “corporate frat houses.” If this is true, perhaps the “bro culture,” of course led by a “C.E.-Bro,” is the reason for Uber’s recent failings and flailings.
Is this the environment that sets the background for other startups as well? Another case study, albeit a more known company than some of Lyons’ examples: Snapchat, a social media platform with disappearing pictures, is frequently used by Princeton students. Princeton itself even has a snapchat under the username @princetonu, where it weekly broadcasts posters and events on campus, allowing students to more fully engage with other groups of the Princeton community. Snapchat was created in September 2011 by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown, and has gained a cult following, with formerly Facebook and currently Twitter trying to buy it. According to MarketWatch, Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, originally had an IPO of around $24 billion, which rose to $33 billion after the first minute of trading, and other companies have used Snapchat filters to advertise or even to recruit for jobs due to the 150 million daily users of the application.
Despite Snapchat’s success, the hypercompetitive and aggressive “C.E.-Bro” culture is, or at least was, rampant. Spiegel and Murphy recently settled a $158 million lawsuit about ousting Brown as one of the original founders of Snapchat, illustrating the inter-company competition that still comes with being a dominant force in the market. And while Snapchat has never been under close scrutiny for sexual harassment, founder Spiegel has come under the limelight for being controversial. Some of his emails from his fraternity days at Stanford were leaked and display the patronizing, unprofessional “bro mentality” that contributes to the sexism prevalent in tech startups. The C.E.”Bro” culture could potentially still exist at Snapchat as a direct result of its base functionality, disappearing pictures, that many people assume are used for sexting However, no recent stories have come to light about sexual harassment, so Snapchat seems to have outgrown that phase on the whole.
The creation of Snapchat for a sexual use is reminiscent to the media’s portrayal Facebook’s founding story. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies that he created Facebook to get girls, the Hollywood production The Social Network portrays Facebook as just that, glorifying Zuckerberg as a C.E.-”Bro.” Yet its recent focus on connections and changes to news feed to display more of friends and family contradict that goal. Despite what Facebook was originally intended for, it is now used as a way to “improve the world and make it a more transparent place,” according to Zuckerberg. Those are altruistic motivations in contrast with “bro culture.”
So while Uber is struggling in the limelight with its recent allegations, perhaps all brought on due to its C.E.-”Bro” Travis Kalanick, Snapchat and Facebook seem to have outgrown the worst of their “bro” phases. While Snapchat refuses to release its diversity numbers, Facebook’s are definitely improving. Focus on diversity and a positive company culture is what matters if the sexism in the industry is to be overturned in the long run.
All in all, under the leadership of a C.E.-”Bro,” startups can be successful because they do value short-term profits and success over long-term relationships with employees in the industry. While the marginalization of women is an inherently negative thing in the industry, Snapchat and Facebook both seem to have recovered from their early days of “bro culture.” Perhaps Uber will too, as it should to prevent further negative media attention. Princeton students, if you continue to consume products of these companies or possibly consider working for them, consider the values of the company and direction that the company is taking as well.